Tay Tah Cafe so-so

28 Sep

Tay tah cafe awning

The Tay Tah Café is at 1182 Solano Ave. at Cornell Street, across from the Albany post office.

The menu offered “Vietnamese sandwiches,” so I asked the young woman behind the cash register with the extremely quiet voice if it was the same as a banh mi sandwich, but she didn’t know. When I asked her to describe what was on it, she said there was a liver paste and mayo, as well as whichever deli meat I wanted plus veggies. I asked if I could sub in mustard, but the woman who was making the food interjected, explaining that it was just like a banh mi sandwich except that it used sliced deli meat instead of cooked chunks, and she said it was not regular mayo but their special blend. So I decided to risk the mayo but skipped the liver paste.

After the sandwich order was all straight, I asked for a medium iced tea lemonade, to which the whispery-voiced woman replied, “Do you want anything to drink?”

Tay-Tah Vietnamese sandwich

Me: (again) a medium iced tea lemonade

Her: What size?

Maybe it was her first day.

I grabbed a table outside while Dave ordered his food. A car honked at another car turning off Cornell. George and I chatted, and Dave brought out napkins. After a while, one of the customers clued us in that our drinks were sitting on the counter inside, so Dave went to rescue them. (I guess the number we sat on our table didn’t include drink delivery.) A different car honked.

George and I tasted our iced tea lemonades. They were weak, with very little flavor either from the tea or the lemonade. Then George’s combo sandwich and my tofu sandwich arrived. I had thought that the tofu might be cooked or flavored in some way. It wasn’t. The bread was warm, which was a nice touch, but the sandwich itself was pretty boring, nothing like the banh mi at Kim’s just up the street. George enjoyed his sandwich. Poor Dave just kept drinking his banana berry smoothie.

Another car honked.

Finally Dave’s beet salad arrived. It featured canned beets and a sweet Italian salad dressing that Dave was not fond of.

Tay-tah beet saladDave declared the best thing there was his smoothie. So maybe Tay Tah Café is more of a drink place. There were also bakery items that we didn’t try, so those might be good too.

Before we left, a fourth car honked at that same intersection. Not exactly the most peaceful atmosphere in which to dine, I must admit. And it seemed odd for Albany, which I think of as a rather sleepy little town. Oh, well…

I asked what the name of the café meant. Although tay tah literally means “flowing water,” it’s part of a Thai expression that means “good business.”

I wonder if there’s a Thai expression for “okay business”?


At the dog park

21 Sep

Rufus @ P.I. May 2013

A man asked if I could spare a poop bag.A man asked if I could spare a poop bag. I gave him one. It occurred to me that there are not too many other places where this would be considered a normal interaction. I heard him calling after his dog, “Fifer!” And here’s what struck me as funny: Fifer was the name we’d chosen to name our child if we’d had a boy. (Kylie reminds us often that she is glad she was born a girl, if for no other reason than she couldn’t imagine going through life as Fifer.) But if she had been born a boy, I would be giving a poop bag to a man to pick up the excrement of a dog with the same name as my son. It’s just something to think about…

Two women were walking together, and one says to the other, “And she said, ‘I could be halfway around the world in the time it takes him to put on his pants.’ I don’t know what that means, but it’s funny!”

My dog, Rufus, is sniffing furiously at a woman, so I feel the need to say something: “He likes to smell.” She responds while motioning to her dog, “She likes to smell too.” We share a momentary bond based on our dogs’ mutual habit of sniffing.

It was Shore Clean-up Day, so people on one side of the fence at Pt. Isabel were carrying big trash bags to pick up garbage, and people on the other side were carrying smaller bags to collect their dogs’ poop. Everyone was doing their share to make our world a little cleaner. Except the dogs.

Suzette Crepe Cafe hits the spot

20 Sep

Suzette signAs I wind down my Lunching Down Solano journey, I continue to discover delightful spots I probably never would have noticed if I weren’t making a special effort. One of these is Suzette Crepe Café, which is down near the San Pablo end of Solano Avenue (1226). It’s a cute little place that’s open all day, Tuesday through Sunday, and serves breakfast any time.

Because Dave was camping with high school buddies (that is, they were friends in high school—he’s not currently hanging out with high school boys), he missed this week’s excursion. But don’t feel too sorry for him because their trip had a visit to a rib joint on the itinerary. And because they were bedding down in an Airstream, even they were calling it “glamping,” which is a combo of glamorous and camping.

But George is my loyal lunch date, so he accompanied me despite his professed low-carb diet. I think I’m a bad influence…

The crepes come in two general categories of savory and sweet, and the savory are divided further into breakfast-y type crepes and what they call “worldly crepes,” named mostly for cities around the world. I think because the overcast sky made it seem like morning even though it was after noon, I decided to go for the Boston breakfast crepe (a good deal at $5.75). I’m not sure why it was so named—it’s not like there were Boston beans in it—but it was delish. It had scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, and bacon all tucked inside a buckwheat crepe. I also opted for the $3 side salad, which was simple but good, and a latté, which was quite beautiful if a little weak.

Suzette Crepe Cafe meal

George was going to get the Albany (ham, Swiss, mushrooms, and béchamel sauce) but went for the Bangkok ($7.25) when it came time to order. And I’m glad he did because I got a taste, and it was yummy. It had chicken, red cabbage, carrot, cilantro, scallions, and bell peppers in a peanut sauce.

Now, the thing is, I have a hard time being at a place that serves crepes without ordering a little something on the sweet side. Or maybe not even that little. There were many wonderful possibilities, including one named for the Five Little Monkeys children’s store next door, but when I saw Crepes Suzette on the menu, I was sold. George said he didn’t mind if I got dessert even though he was not going to partake.

But the waitperson brought two fresh sets of flatware, and once the aroma of the Grand Marnier hit his nose, he couldn’t resist taking a few bites. The Grand Marnier did not taste as if the alcohol had burned off, which was fine by me. George said the vanilla ice cream tasted like the ice cream he had as a child in Iowa. I just know the end result of the orange sauce with the crepe and the ice cream was heavenly. It was definitely not on either of our diets. I know I’m a bad influence…Suzette window

Still strollin’

14 Sep
Solano Stroll Silver Man 2014

Rainbow Silver Man poses with little girl

I’ve only missed one Solano Stroll in the last fifteen years. They are all pretty much the same, but I always enjoy them. It’s just a huge neighborhood party where I run into friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in a while, and enjoy the perfect weather. I missed the parade this year, but I’m sure it was fun.

Something that I saw a lot of this year was the prize wheel. Every other booth had one giving away lollipops, toys, pizza, and all kinds of things.

I bought more this year than I normally do, but I ate less. And I had no sweets. (Despite my love for funnel cakes.) I didn’t even take a free sample at the Brownies to Die For booth. But I’m a sucker for good balsamic vinegars, so I got a 4-pack. I know it may sound strange, but the chocolate balsamic vinegar was so rich and delicious (okay, I did have samples there) that I can’t wait to buy strawberries to put it on.

From the cotton scarves and adorable kiddy hats at the usual Tibetan gift shop booths—yes, multiple Tibetan gift shop booths—to the 1000-thread count sheets for $39.99 and any book for a dollar at the Albany library booth, there was plenty there to buy. I’m willing to bet that over a thousand pair of earrings were available.

Since it’s an election year, the local candidates and upcoming measures had their promoters, and various government agencies had a presence there as well.

Most of the Solano eateries had some sort of special going on, either to lure people off the main drag into their restaurants or via a take-out station. Fonda’s was open for lunch and had tables outside in front of their restaurant. There were two Jamba juices. And then there were the food vendors that show up at every carnival and county fair selling kettle corn, roasted corn, cotton candy, and BBQ. The oddest-named food item that I saw advertised was dubbed a “chicken lollipop,” but I’m guessing that if I had seen one, it would have looked a lot like chicken satay.

Several churches, Hillel, and the Atheist Society staked out their spots along Solano. Every school, public and private, was represented. Albany High cheerleaders were raising money for the Cougars, Thousand Oaks Elementary parents had their fund-raising booth, and a Crowden student was playing a violin.

On the top end were all things Berkeley: the Berkeley Historical Society, the Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network, Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, and of course, Berkeleyside. On the Albany end were huge slides, rock-climbing walls, and a karaoke booth courtesy of the Mel-o-Dee Lounge.

Solano Stroll belly dancersDance offerings included international folk dances, belly dancers, and Katie’s Dance Studio, who always puts on a professional show of kids from tiny tots to teen doing tap, jazz, and hip-hop. And they win the award for most costume changes in one performance.

Music was heard on every corner and in between, from the Minor Seven Jazz combo (my guess is that except for the teen drummer, they were all twelve or younger) to the bluesy singer set up across from Pegasus to the guy who was singing and playing his guitar all by himself and probably didn’t realize that nobody could hear the guitar, making it essentially an a capella performance.

People are generally happy and pretty mellow at the Solano Stroll. It’s rare that I hear any discord. I did see a woman trip over a baby, but she apologized profusely, and you gotta wonder what that baby was doing sitting in the middle of the street…

It was a great day to catch up with neighbors, buy a hat, sit on a curb to eat lunch, and get in some great people watching. Next year will probably have much of the same offerings as this year, and I will happily go again.

Zarri’s is a nice little deli

12 Sep
Zarri's storefront

Me & George

Although it’s changed hands since it opened in 1974, Zarri’s Delicatessen is still the old-fashioned deli that it’s been for years, the kind of no-nonsense sandwich place that every neighborhood needs. Open every day but Sunday, it’s a dependable spot to grab a fairly inexpensive sandwich and all the sides for a nice picnic. West of the BART tracks on the south side of Solano Ave. (1244), Zarri’s is mostly geared for take-out, but they do have one small table inside and one outside.

old Zarri's

Zarri’s old storefront

The building is looking pretty spiffy, and they recently replaced their old faded awning with a new sign. I recall that a 90-year-old man had driven a van into the front window a year ago, but I don’t know if that is necessarily connected to any of the remodeling that took place.*

Since it was a beautiful day, we were glad to snatch the outside table for three. Our timing was good too. Arriving just after noon, we beat the onslaught of Albany High kids who are clearly regulars there.

They have a wonderful selection of soft drinks and chips to accompany just about any kind of sandwich you can think of, as well as quite a few sweets to tempt you as you line up to pay at the cash register. They also have hot dogs, which is new since the last time I’d visited.

George is fond of the Po’ Boys, so he got one of those on a hard roll, which prompted a discussion on the impracticality of sandwiches on hard rolls. We agreed that all the goodies tend to slip right out the back unless you’re careful and hold on tight. I had an easier time eating my salami and pepper jack on light rye. (Light rye is one of those breads that I’d never buy a whole loaf of, but it’s perfect for a salami sandwich.) George commented on his potato salad: “It’s either worse than I remember, or my tolerance for potato salad is lower.” Zarri's salami on rye

My vocal disdain for potato salad in general emboldened George to ask me if I’d always hated mayonnaise or if there was some traumatic experience that explained my aversion. I had to admit that as a child my favorite lunch was a slice of bologna with Miracle Whip (that was my family’s version of mayo) on Wonder bread. But after eating bologna sandwiches for years, I suddenly realized at around age ten that all three of its components were vile, and I never had one again. Of course George makes his own mayo, which is probably light-years away from the Miracle Whip I ate in Oklahoma, but I see no good reason to start liking mayonnaise now. It’s probably the only really fattening thing I don’t like, so why risk a new habit that has the unwanted side effect of extra calories? Besides I love mustard, and with mustard around, who needs anything else?

Dave did not order wisely. Everyone knows that at a deli, you’re supposed to order something with cold cuts and pile on the cheese and veggies. Dave went for the BBQ tri-tip, which was just some beef on bread that had been slathered with BBQ sauce. It wasn’t bad, but Zarri’s is no barbecue joint. Poor Dave.

The beverage case was cool but not cold, so Dave’s bottle of root beer was not as frosty as he’d hoped. In an effort to lower its temperature, he asked for a cup of ice, but they don’t have any ice. I guess since they don’t have a soda fountain, they don’t need ice, but it still seemed a bit odd.

Despite the heat, Dave made do with his less-than-frosty root beer.

Zarri’s has friendly service, lots of options, and that nice small-town Albany feel.

*For more on that story, see http://patch.com/california/albany/van-smashes-into-zarris-deli–misses-customer-by-seconds#.VBOKyfldWSo

Oori’s fills the void with rice

10 Sep

OoriBecause I’m mostly going in order from east to west in my quest to lunch all the way down Solano Avenue, I have occasionally missed my opportunity to have a meal at a place before it goes out of business. This was the sad truth for Sophia Café, which I don’t believe was even around for very long.

Now the little spot just west of the BART tracks is a new place called Oori, though it took me a while to actually distinguish whether the first letter was indeed an “O,” looking as it did like an open swoosh. (See photo.) The young employee behind the cash register couldn’t tell me where the name came from but did confirm that it was Oori.

We arrived just after a swell of Albany High kids descended upon the tiny eatery, which gave us plenty of time to figure out ahead of time what we wanted to try. The menu is simple but provides for lots of combinations. The main attraction is a dish called a rice triangle, which is seaweed folded into a roundish triangle, stuffed with rice and a little bit of meat or tofu.  An order of three of these food modules comes with what are referred to as “sides” of edamame and kim chee, though Dave’s five edamame and tablespoon of kim chee was really more decorative than filling. Dave and George ordered combinations that included shrimp, spicy BBQ pork, and chicken. George said that the BBQ pork was not actually spicy, but he ate it happily. I am not a seaweed eater, so I got the chicken and rice platter, which was more expensive but had a better meat to rice ratio and included nine edamame and a more substantial helping of kim chee, which was somewhat bland and surprisingly white but not bad. The rice was a bit gummy, but it was all perfectly edible.

This is Oori’s first retail outlet, but it’s been around at farmers’ markets and has a presence on UC Berkeley campus. It’s not really my kind of place, but I think someone made a smart business decision putting it within walking distance of Albany High. It’s perfect for a quick, cheap, healthy lunch and may even make the lines shorter at Gordo’s on weekdays at lunch.



Ginger’s gift

9 Sep

hammock Dave & Tucker

Dave and Tucker enjoy the hammock.

When Dave’s dad was alive, he had a substantial hammock that was the picture of leisure, situated as it was in a generously portioned and perfectly manicured lawn. Transplanted to our backyard, it kind of dwarfs our little patch of grass, but it’s a wonderful reminder that we live in a climate where we can enjoy our backyard year round.

Because it’s only yards away from the French doors that separate his office from the backyard, Dave has taken advantage of the hammock several times, whether he’s taking a well-deserved break from work or just enjoying the beautiful weather. Our daughter Kylie has read books out there, chatted on the phone, and got in some important cuddling time with our cat before heading back east for school.

But until last weekend, I had yet to experience the hammock. When I realized I had an unscheduled afternoon, I decided to seize the opportunity to test out this recent addition to our backyard. It was sunny but not sticky hot, with the occasional breeze swirling by. It was quieter than it had been in a few days that had been filled with family celebrations. Kylie was back at college, and Ginger had gone home too. (Ginger is Dave’s sister’s dog, who was a guest at our house while her adult companions were in Greece.)

So I headed out the back door, ready for my virgin voyage. As soon as I’d swung my legs up, I detected a foul stench. I peeked over the edge and saw the flattened brown remains just below. My gaze crossed to my sandals (still on my feet),  which were now smearing brown on the forest green fabric of the hammock.

“Shit!” was the only appropriate response. Apparently Ginger had left a little souvenir.

I disembarked, hosed off the bottom of my sandals, and scrubbed the offensive smell off the otherwise pristine hammock. Then I inspected my sandals more carefully and realized I needed some sort of tool to dig out the grooves on the soles. Luckily, I have an old toothbrush for just such emergencies, and I put it to work.

But I still smelled dog poop. Was it just stuck in my nose—an olfactory hallucination sparked by that image etched on my memory?

No. It was my foot. Somehow I’d missed the spot where the sandal had rubbed against my skin. Although I know it was just a tiny patch that was easily wiped, I felt thoroughly dirty.

Refreshed and ready to try again after my shower, I carefully stepped to the side of the now-flat brown spot under the hammock and reclined into optimum relaxing position. We live in a pretty quiet neighborhood, but that afternoon, three pre-teen girls were enjoying the warm weather by taking a series of selfies on the deck of the house behind ours.

“Okay, now let’s take one with our elbows like this!”

I tried to be all zen about it. After all, it’s not like it was in the middle of the night and they were doing something awful. But their squeals of laughter were not conducive to the idyllic afternoon I had imagined. Maybe if I turned and faced the other direction, I’d hear them a tiny bit less, I thought, as I pivoted around to place my head where my feet had been. But the pivoting was not successful. I found myself toppling headfirst to the grass below. Fortunately, I didn’t hit the metal rod that gives the hammock its structural integrity.

Unfortunately, I had not cleaned up the dog poop from before.

After emerging from my second shower of the day, I decided to abandon the hammock dream. At least for now…

China Village rises gloriously from the ashes

25 Aug

China Village

I hadn’t been to China Village since they’d remodeled after the big fire, which put them out of commission for over a year. hey definitely took the opportunity to snazz up the dining room as well as replace the kitchen. And it’s the same chef and owner since it opened over 15 years ago, so the food is just as good. The menus were updated, though, to reflect what was always available but not necessarily advertised. It used to be one of those places where regulars knew what to order off the menu, but if you weren’t privy to the secret dishes, you wondered why the next table was eating something that you don’t remember seeing as an option. And the menu must have a hundred dishes on it! It’s truly the James Michener–epic version of menus. Factor in a little extra time for reading…

Everyone gets a complimentary bowl of hot and sour soup to start, which was very good. And hot tea is free, which is becoming less common these days. (You have to pay for it at another upscale Chinese place on the upper end of Solano that will here remain nameless.) We ordered two appetizers that came after the spicy chicken noodle salad that I’d ordered, but I didn’t care—it was all good, and the three of us were eating family style anyway. Don’t be fooled by the name—the “salad” had little in the way of veggies, but it was delish. And since it was essentially peanut noodles with some matchstick bites of sesame chicken and a few cucumber bits thrown in, I was happy, and George loved it.

Our onion cakes weren’t all that special, but they came in handy for reasons soon to be disclosed. The veggie potstickers were hot, fresh, and tasty, though, and the dipping sauce that accompanied them was perfect. I ran out of water and was already working on Dave’s glass when I got the waiter’s attention to bring more. I was happily surprised when he arrived with not just the communal pitcher but a carafe for the table, which totally made up for the fact that I had to ask for water.

And it’s a good thing that we had plenty of water because Dave’s spicy short ribs were indeed spicy. I like spicy food, and it tasted good, but I couldn’t handle that much heat. This is when I returned to the fried onion cakes because they counteracted the spice factor in a sort of alimentary balance act. George’s choice, the cumin lamb, was just the right amount of spicy. And it was presented with a lovely bright red radish rose. (See photo.)

It was quite a lot of food. (There was just so much that we wanted to try…) So we ended up with a full bag of takeout containers—enough for two to have another meal! But even so, it turned out to be only $17 per person (before tip). So if we’d ordered more appropriately for three people eating just one lunch, I think it would have been pretty reasonable. We’re going back soon for dinner so we can try more of the many dishes that looked tempting.

China Village (1335 Solano Ave., btwn Ramona & Pomona in Albany, CA) chinavillagealbany.com

Britt-Marie’s continues to delight

21 Aug
Britt-Marie's topinka & goat cheese

topinka + some goat cheese on bread with a bit of salad

Many places come and go on this mile-long thoroughfare that is Solano Avenue, but one place that has survived the many iterations of restaurants around it and has hardly changed is Britt-Marie’s. A black and white picture of Mother Jones hangs prominently in the front section of the dining room, where it has hung for decades. I’m pretty sure I had topinka there in 1985, not long after I moved to the Bay Area, fresh out of college.  And when I ate there a few days ago, it was the same delicious topinka I remembered.

Britt-Marie’s comes with an interesting history that you won’t find on any website. Apparently, before it was a restaurant, it was a lesbian bar that was painted all black and red. At one time, it was run  by a married couple, but when the wife caught the husband with one of the waitresses, Britt-Marie’s got sold as part of the divorce settlement.

Unpretentious but comfortable, Britt-Marie’s is the perfect spot to meet a friend for a quiet lunch. Britt-marie's gyroIt has a relaxed atmosphere where you don’t have to talk over loud music and you feel okay lingering over a glass of wine. Paper flowers adorned our table, and I noticed an interesting assortment of framed photos, including one of a modern metal chair sitting among some large rocks outside.

Even though it was lunch, we all decided to go for alcoholic libations. George ordered a Husch pinot noir that he already knew and loved. Dave surprised me by ordering a Mill Creek sauvignon blanc, which he liked. (He always orders red!) I went for the Pilsner Urquell on tap, which was just what I was in the mood for. We thought about trying something new, but why try something else when you know there are things on the menu that you know are delicious? We ordered two of our favorite starters—the baked goat cheese salad (with a raspberry vinaigrette, grapes, and glazed pecans-yum!) and the topinka. (Even though it’s not officially on the lunch menu, the chef made it for us anyway.)  What is topinka, you ask? It’s bread with toasted emmenthaler cheese, garlic, and olive oil. And I’m pretty sure it’s lo-cal…

Britt-Marie's chickenMy gyros was pretty good and so was Dave’s chicken. George was a tad disappointed with the dab of chipotle aioli that was barely on his burger, but eventually our waitperson brought out some more. This same waitperson did not notice my empty water glass, so I had to flag him down. Suffice it to say that the service this time around did not get high marks. (But I’ve been there before when the service was great, so it could have been an off day.)Britt-Marie's burger

Of course Britt-Marie’s holds a special place in my heart because we hosted our wedding reception there. (This was our second wedding, the one we had after much of Dave’s family couldn’t make it to our first one, which was a surprise backyard wedding. But that’s a story for another time…)

Britt-Marie’s Café & Wine Bar is at 1369 Solano Avenue, Albany, CA. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30am – 2:00pm & 5:00pm – 10:00pm, and on Sunday from 5:30pm – 11:00pm.


Marsh Berkeley offers Josh Kornbluth and the Piper

18 Aug

josh kornbluthI’m a big Josh Kornbluth fan.

I remember seeing him in the basement of LaVal’s Subterranean Café back in 1989 when Dave and I were the only ones in the audience besides his director. That was his first show, Red Diaper Baby. From there, he went on to the Marsh in San Francisco to develop several more one-man shows, including Haiku Tunnel, which was made into a full-length feature film, a project that included his brother Jacob, who incidentally just won an Emmy.

Since then, I’ve seen every new show of Josh’s, whether it was at the Marsh in S.F., at the Ashby Stage as part of the Shotgun Players’ line-up, or at the Jewish Community Center. (I even saw him perform at a Berkeley High fundraiser when my daughter went to school there.)

Right now he’s developing a new show, and I was lucky enough to see him at Marsh’s Cabaret in downtown Berkeley. (It was so nice to be able to stay in my hometown and not battle the bridge to get to the Marsh in the city…) His process is to  in front of an audience while he works on a new piece. So even though what I saw this past Thursday may be quite different from what he comes up with for his show, I got to see the seeds as they were sprouting. And Josh is so much fun to watch, whether he’s talking about his dad, past jobs, his (relatively recent!) bar mitzvah, or even taxes.  I’m excited about this particular show because it draws on rich material—his experiences as a volunteer at Zen Hospice in San Francisco. If anyone can handle such sensitive material with grace and humor, it’s Josh.

Go see it now while it’s in development and then again next year when it hits the main stage. I’ll definitely see it again.

But wait, there’s more!

The night after I saw Josh, I returned to the Berkeley Marsh to see Jinho Ferreira (aka the Piper) perform a one-man show he wrote called Cops and Robbers. Oakland born-and-bred alternative hip-hop artist and member of Flipsyde, Ferreira decided to go the police academy and graduated four years ago. According to his website:piper

The paradox of being a member of the Black community and a hip-hop artist, while simultaneously working in Law Enforcement, served as the inspiration to write Cops and Robbers.”

The show is particularly relevant after the recent cop shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (He even made a reference to the case, which he must have added long after the show debuted.) He is a skilled performer, becoming 17 different characters and conveying each one’s point of view. Because the content is so serious, he did what he could to add a bit of levity via a female news reporter character; but that character didn’t work as well as his others. The show was not biased toward any one point of view—the circumstances were painted in all shades of gray. The piece doesn’t take any easy ways out and offers no solutions, but it raises important questions that unfortunately have to be asked.


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